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Sensory Path Holly Barker
Special Education Teacher and Sensory Path Developer Holly Barker

When Oxford special education teacher Holly Barker Clay uploaded a 96-second video to Facebook on Labor Day, she expected it would draw some attention.

The clip starts with a Bramlett Elementary student at the base of a flower with 12 leaves pinned down on the school’s floor. Each leaf has a number in the center, and the boy’s feet land with the precision of an athlete running coordination drills. 

He leapfrogs landing on lily pads, side steps on a series of colorful footprints and does push-ups along the north Mississippi’s school’s hallway.

At one point, he crouches down on a log before walking along a series of black and white dotted lines. The 80-foot long pattern ends with a hopscotch on alphabet cutouts. 

A number of children Clay works with are on the autism spectrum, and she designed the sensory path with them in mind. 

“I know how important it is that they get up and move,” she said. “It’s (the sensory path) providing them a place to come for just a few minutes and get some movement. All that stored energy gets released, (when they go back to their classroom) they can think clearly.”

Within hours, Clay’s Facebook post showcasing her school’s sensory path, the product of more than 80 hours of work, in action had more than a million views.

By Thursday, the video had solidly crossed the territory from viral to must-watch, having garnered more than 32 million views.

One commentator noted, that’s just shy of 10 percent of the United States’ population.

“The hype is cool, but I’m a school teacher,” Clay told the Clarion Ledger. “I work for kids.”

Case in point: Clay advised a reporter she might hear background noise during her interview. The kids Clay “works for” are preschoolers and kindergarteners, and the veteran educator was busy cleaning up her classroom when called.

To understand why more than 700,000 people have shared the video, it’s helpful to understand what a sensory path is and what it’s not.

It’s not a timeout. It’s not an excuse to miss class.

And it’s not, Clay adds, “just a series of stickers.”

There is a method to the fun.

As with any good teacher, she did her homework.

Clay consulted with physical and occupational therapists to ensure the pathway would be productive.

Done wrong, she explains, it has the potential to be too overstimulating. 

Clay’s approach is also likely to be welcomed by advocates who have expressed concerns with how school districts discipline children with learning differences.

The sensory path is a place where students can take a breath and refocus.

Rather than treating an outburst as a behavior problem, Clay understands her students are likely expressing a sensory need. 

“We don’t fuss,” she said.

When appropriate, a teacher might take their student to the sensory path. 

As they move through the path, the student will receive encouragements.

“It’s going to be OK. You’ve got this. You know how to do it.”

“It just works,” Clay said.

She has plans to create another sensory path near the school’s pre-kindergarten classrooms.

Bramlett also has a sensory path outside.

On a recent school day, Oxford Superintendent Brian Harvey tried out the path.

That video has more than 700,000 views.

“Ms. Clay’s dedication to meeting the needs of her students is to be commended,” he said. “Based on the number of messages we have received from around the world, it is apparent that she has met a need that is not unique to just our students.” 

Among those who have reached out? A father in Holland who wants to know if a sensory path could go in his home for his 5-year-old son and a 16-year-old girl with autism who wishes her school could install a similar path to help calm her anxieties.

Clay says she’s been touched by the influx of messages she’s received but the conversation with the aforementioned teenager brought her to tears.

Clay’s 21-year-old daughter, Madison, also has autism. The only break in Clay’s teaching career of 15 years came when she left the classroom for three years to support her child.

“It made me cry because my daughter was in the same boat,” she said. “I told her, ‘hold on it’s going to be all right.'” 

And if the teenager’s school will have her she’s glad to show them how they can have a sensory path, too.

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